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The first stock photo companies were running in the 1920s and 1930s. Yes, before the internet. Publishers, newspapers, and advertisers originally used stock photos as a way to save on the costs of hiring professional photographers. Multiple people/companies could use these were generic images, as long as they paid for it. In the internet age, the use of stock has become much more popular.

They have become something more common and comfortable to get, and much easier to access than a professional photographer.

Be ready! This one is going to be long and I’m going to cover…

  • the main pros and cons of using stock photos,

  • when to use them and when to avoid them,

  • licensing rules and the different types of licenses,

  • some creative uses and inspirations for stock photos, and

  • a list of my favourite stock photos resources



  1. Cheap/free. Hiring a professional photographer is not cheap. Especially when you need only one or two specific images. Stock photos are perfect for something that is cheap or, sometimes, completely free. Just keep in mind that what you want to use the photo for depends on your license and those costs are different.

  2. High quality/professional. Most photos are done by professionals. This means that you are getting the benefits of a professional photographer without having to pay for individual photo shoots. Depending on where you get your stock photos from and what their license is, you should also be able to get large, print-quality images.

  3. Editing rights. Sometimes, the stock photos you get may not be exactly as you need them. Always double-check your license agreement, but usually, you have some editing rights when you get a stock photo. This means you can crop and cut down to the exact size you need or even add some special effects, filters, or specific colours.

  4. Save time. It is so much faster to go online, find your stock photos, and either buy or just download them. The other option is to hire out a photographer and wait for the images to be edited. Save time by getting exactly what you are looking almost immediately (based on your download speed).


  1. Not original/exclusive. Unless you purchase an enhanced license with exclusivity laws and rights, the chances that someone out there is using that exact same stock photo for something else are very likely. A lot of stock photos are designed to be generic and can be used to represent multiple meanings.

  2. May not follow your exact vision. It is really hard if you have something very specific in mind of a stock photo you want to use. Sometimes, you can’t find that specificity, that exact angle, or that perfect shade of orange. Stock photos are not likely to be exactly what you need.

  3. Complicated licenses. There are 5 main types of licenses when using stock photos: public domain, creative commons, royalty-free, rights-managed and extended. Each is different so you need to make sure you understand the specific license before using any stock photo.

  4. Bad quality/wrong sizes. Although most stock photos are done by professionals, there are also some done by amateurs. This means that the stock photo may be blurry or, more commonly, the wrong size. Just make sure that you are not using a thumbnail image for poster design and always check quality!


There are three main reasons to use stock photos:

  1. If you are in a bind. If you are really strapped for cash or time, stock photos are your best friend! They are cheap (sometimes free) and you can download them immediately for use.

  2. With content pieces. When it comes to stock photos always remember that the copy should be more important than the imagery. Make sure that your message can get across to your audience even without the imagery.

  3. Minor work. When I say minor, I don’t mean not important! But in this case, I am referring to items that are not representative of your brand, start-up businesses, or even something as simple as blog articles.


  1. Building a brand. Stock photos are rarely exclusive. The last thing you want to do is build your entire company brand and look on a photo that is being used by another person, or even a competitor. You can use stock photos to support your brand or, if you’re starting out, use a purchased image, but don’t base your entire brand around it.

  2. Online ads/social media. Don’t use a stock photo of people laughing to say how happy your product makes people. Social media and online ads are based on algorithms, so your audience sees your ads because they are interested in your product. Show them that so are you and be original.

  3. Overused photos. If you’ve seen that photo somewhere else, avoid it like the plague! The internet is a big place and there are almost 2 billions active websites (source). If you can find that exact same photo somewhere else, so can your audience. The last thing you want to do is have your company/product be associated with someone else.

Remember: original is always better. But if the alternative is no image at all, get a stock photo! And if you can get it for free? Even better!

But be careful!


Licenses for stock media is always a tricky subject. Firstly, what is stock media? Based on the definition provided on Webopedia by Vangie Beal, here is a quick rundown. Stock media includes photos, computer-generated graphics, clip-art, vectors, and other forms of imagery provided by professionals, which can be purchased and used for commercial designs.

The company/person from whom the stock media is purchased is responsible for determining the ownership, licensing, and other legalities. Stock media is a cost-effective method for designers to obtain and use professional images for creative work.

The licenses involved are the most important thing to keep in mind when thinking about using stock media. There are many different types of licenses, depending on where the images are available. Here is a quick overview of the most common categories for stock media:


A public domain image does not refer to a license. Intellectual property laws, such as copyright, do not protect these creative materials and stock media. The means exactly what it is: belonging to the public. This means that the public, instead of the original creator, owns the creative works. This also means that anyone can use the stock media for personal and commercial use, without needing permission.

This, however, also means that no one can ever own it. You need to note that just because something is public domain does not mean that its derivatives are copyright free. Example: a book with public domain photos will be copyright to the author, even if individual images are public domain.


The basic Creative Commons (CC) license enables the free distribution of copyrighted works, such as stock media. This gives other people the right to share, use, and build upon a work that the original author/artist has created. Each CC license is different. You need to make sure that you follow the outlines before using any stock photography with this license. Different CC licenses are based on four main factors: attribution, share-alike, commercial use, and derivative use.

You can read more about it on the Creative Commons website to better understand what each of these means. Please note that while the Creative Commons has provided an alternative to the “all rights reserved” copyright, this does not mean that the creative works are completely free. This is where “some rights reserved” comes into play.


The first thing to know about royalty-free is that it does not mean “free”. Royalty is an agreed-on fee paid for each use of a commercial item. This means that users will not be paying a royalty for each copy or use of individual stock photography. A brochure with 1,000 prints with stock media will need to have its royalty paid for each of the prints.

A royalty-free (RF) image license means that users would pay a one-time fee for the image license. They can then use the image in as many places and as many times as they want to. An RF image license means you can use these royalty-free images, vectors, photos, and illustrations multiple times after paying. Additionally, some stock media may be both royalty-free and still hold a creative commons license.


Rights-Managed (RM) image licenses limit how the purchased stock media can be used. This is a much more strict license type where users pay a one-time charge for the one-time use of a photo or other artistic creation. This means that users need to purchase additional licenses to use the media for other uses. These licenses are more expensive; however, they also offer the option of purchasing stock media for exclusive use.

Exclusive use means that this media now belongs to you. An additional copyright license needs to be negotiated further for the exclusive use of an image. Additionally, note that images with a Rights Managed license can also have a royalty-free license.


An extended license provides you with additional rights to the purchased media or stock photography. These licenses may be different from every supplier or the original artist. It is extremely important that you read through all the details before purchasing anything. Some examples of the difference between a standard and extended license may be the number of end products; a standard license may limit your use of a purchased image to 1,000 copies.

This means that the moment you get to 1,001, you will need to purchase an additional license. Some suppliers may include an exclusivity clause in their extended licenses. Some may include a commercial-use option that is not available in their standard licenses. Once again, it is very important for you to read through the license agreement before making any purchases!


Stock photos are professional photos made available on the internet for commercial use. Stock photos great for a featured image in an online article, or a placeholder on a marketing flyer. Their use, however, is not limited to product placement or blog add-ons: they can be inspirational too.

As it is much easier to find stock photos now than in the past, it is also much easier to provide them. You don’t need to be a professional photographer to submit your photos to a site: just follow their submission guidelines. These larger numbers of available sources also provide for some truly inspirational photography, where the image speaks for itself.


It can depend on what your brand is aiming for or even what the trends for the year are, but colours can be inspirational too. A lot of stock photos have high contrasts and unique colour palettes. These can follow the design trends of the year (which, for two years in a row, includes bright neon colours).

A good example of how this can help is colour palettes. I have discovered some absolutely beautiful photos of sunsets where the combination of pink and purple in the sky looked so good against the bright green of the grass. Add on the yellow of the sun and blue of the water and… well… although greys are the main focus in my personal colour palette the photo is what inspired my brand accent colours.


In this case, I am referring to the camera or lens focus options, rather than the “focus on yourself” type of inspiration. We are so used to photos with foreground, background, and subject. That is usually the standard. Sometimes, there is more than one subject in the photo and sometimes the background is indiscernible. It has become more popular to play with the focus by blurring one of these three completely.

Other than making the photos themselves truly unique, it can give you some other ideas. I love photos of rain, or dust, or snow when it is so zoomed in that everything else is completely gone. This gave me the idea to play around with different effects and filters to create something new.


You have your standard inspirational photography of people climbing mountains, beautiful landscapes, or amazing sunsets. There are many more inspirational photos out there used in conjunction with quotes. But not all inspiration comes from these. You can come up with the idea of your next marketing campaign using different models. Or your social media accounts to start adding a crazy effect.

One of my personal favourite examples is the use of fruits to show off manicures. This idea came to me while browsing online then noticing that my nail design at the time matched the pineapples in a fruit stock photo. Even if it’s not original, anything can be inspiring, just be open to the idea.


As weird as it may sound, stock photos can make for some very beautiful pieces in your home. There are many sites available online allowing you to put custom prints on any object. These can range from canvas prints to pillows and sheets, from shower curtains and carpets to placemats and mugs. So many things are available and you can print almost anything on them.

Why not use stock photos?

The best thing about these sites is that they will first show you a mockup of your product before printing. Some very good examples of sites like this are Society6 and Zazzle. I know there are many more out there, but I stand by Zazzle for the quality of their products and Society6 for the way they treat their talent.


Although I had previously stated to never use stock photos for advertising, social media is not exactly the same. As long as you are using them in the correct way, stock photos can help your social media presence. You can use stock photos to show inspirational content with great colours, focus and angles, and interesting subject matters.

This is extremely popular on Instagram and can be used to further an already created brand identity. Remember to use hashtags and be creative… add some filters, quotes, or personalized messages to make the photos your own. Always remember to do your research and take a look at what your competitors are doing. Using stock photos to promote your brand is not always the answer.


If you have a concept or story in mind but lack the means to present it, use stock photos. Use stock photos to fill in the gaps in your story and become inspirational messages. I say storyline this can be either taken literally or figuratively. If you have a story you want to tell with your brand message, a specific lifestyle you want to sell, stock photos can provide you with an extra source of visual representation.

On the other hand, if you have a literal story you are telling, stock photos can be the inspirational visual to add images to your content. Think of picture books and then try to think of at least one person that has not looked through it. With a lower attention span and an abundance of online visuals, what better way to tell your story?


Stock photos are professional photos made available on the internet for commercial use. While the most popular stock photo sites are paid or even subscription-based, there are plenty of free options out there. Just make sure you are familiar with the license on both the site and the individual photo.

I have been using stock photography for work for years now and have yet to hear a complaint. Recently, I’ve even decided to start using them on my blog! Just the idea of creating original images for every article made me stop writing articles for a while. Even so, I am used to doing the image research involved both for myself and for clients. This is when I go crazy with my standard stock photo sites. Sometimes, though, it is better for you to find your own images. In this article, I will provide you with a list of my favourite stock photo sites along with some basic info about image research.

This stock photo site focuses more on the photography aspect of stock photos rather than the “stock”. Unsplash uses more artsy-style photography; think Instagram filters, hyper-focus, higher contrast, and more artistic feel. This is not the case for all photos, but it seems to be the baseline. Unfortunately, though, the search option is a little tricky. Searching “red flowers” will bring up all images tagged “red” along with all images tagged “flowers”. License

Pixabay has a much larger selection of images than Unsplash. This stock photo site has everything from the more artistic style photos to more generic and business-like options. My main reason for using Pixabay is for the large selection of vector graphics and illustrations. Another really good thing about this site is that you can download stock photos in multiple different sizes. If you only need a thumbnail, there is no need to download the full 3000px width photo. License

Pexels is a very good stock photo site that, once again, focuses more on the photography aspect. You get some really talented photographers and, the main reason why I like it, you get a lot of models. Every time I’ve searched for photos where I want the focus to be a model, I get the staged model shots. Additionally, there are some really good quality “candid” style photos in there to show a more realistic look on people. License

I have to admit, I don’t use this stock photo site that often. Usually, by this point, I have found what I needed in either of the other three above. Sometimes though, I like to browse this one for inspiration. But oh, boy! Their business category is to die for. There are a lot of professional photos, along with “over-head” shots, and more candid photography. The license here is available to view on each individual photo with a clear specification. Some photos have modification rights or may not be available commercially, but it is all written in plain English.

This stock photo site offers more quirky, wild, and quite different photography than any of the others. I have to admit, I have very rarely used something from here, but I love browsing through it. On Gratisography you will find more bright colours, unconventional poses, weird expressions, and realistic models. If I ever get a client that needs this type of imagery, I know I will have too many options! License


Firstly, image research is different from image search! Yes, it does involve searching. It is, however, more of a focus on finding the right imagery to convey a specific message. Secondly, if you are finding the photos yourself I highly suggest you create your own image directory. This helps you keep track of your images and where you use them, so you don’t use them multiple times.

When you know you need to get some specific images into your final product but don’t have those images, there are two main options: 1) Get your designer to find them, or 2) Find them yourself. I love doing this type of research and I have my standard sites that I use on a regular basis. Unfortunately, that is not always the best case. If you have a clear vision of what you want, it may be faster for you to find it yourself. Some designers may take hours to find an image and a lot of back and forth between you and them. If you are comfortable with that or trust your designer’s vision completely, let them do it. Otherwise, I suggest you try and find them yourself.

There is a middle ground as well. I have had projects where my clients have literally done a Google image search and said, “I want these”. In that case, I go find the closest thing to those photos on one of my bookmarked sites. A similar option to this is to provide a mood-board to your designer. In a similar sense, this will give your designer an idea of the style of imagery you are looking for.


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